Before I get into this post, I want to take a second to highly recommend Pirates Prospects' 2012 Prospect Guide. The 2011 version was invaluable to me when I was in Bradenton last spring and throughout the year as I tried to keep up with the Pirates' minor league system. The 2012 book is every bit as comprehensive. I can't imagine anyone anywhere knows more about the Pirates' minor leaguers than Tim and his staff, and the fact that this book is produced by an independent blog is awesome. If you're interested in the Pirates' minor league system at all, it's worth your $20.
John Sickels released his minor league organizational rankings today and he put the Pirates' 12th. Even though he did it with the caveat that it's not something he's done before and that he's a bit uncomfortable splitting hairs between every single team, it's a good jumping off point to discuss the state of the Pirates' system as the beginning of the 2012 season draws nearer every day.
When the rest of the lists come out (I'm talking mainly about Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, though FanGraphs will have a list and Jonathan Mayo at MLB.com will likely do one, too), I'd expect the Pirates to probably finish, on average, pretty close to where Sickels put them yesterday. BP's Jason Parks (who doesn't do their prospect lists, but who has plenty of prospect knowledge and who does their podcast with BP's designated Prospect Guy Kevin Goldstein, which I'll talk a bit more about in a bit) said very late in the summer that he thought the Pirates would be in consideration to be one of his top ten systems in baseball (via) and from what I can tell, I think that most people will probably have the Pirates' system pegged somewhere in the back half of the top ten or the first half of the second ten.
This is pretty objectively a good thing, and many Pirate fans reacted positively when Sickels' list came out. On the other hand, though, I've put very little stock into the poor rankings the Pirates' system has gotten in past years, so it'd be a double standard for me to just trumpet a better ranking without asking questions. What does it mean, really? How good is the 12th best system in baseball? Should a team that always picks in the top five and spends money like crazy on the draft be happy with a 7-12 placing? Does it matter even a little bit how a farm system ranks?
For perspective, this is how Sickels writes up the 11th-13th best farm systems on his list:
11) Boston Red Sox: Large group of B- types who can improve. Hitting stronger than pitching at this point.
12) Pittsburgh Pirates: Heavy draft investments slowly-but-steadily raising the talent level in this system.
13) Colorado Rockies: Middle of the pack at this stage, two definite impact talents and a large group of C+ types who can improve.
B-minus types that can improve. C-plus types that can improve. In the Neal Huntington era, though, the Pirates have picked second, fourth, second, and first overall in the draft. They've spent a huge amount of money in the draft in the last few years, but look at how they rank compared to other teams that also spend a ton of money. The Royals are well above them, they rank on par with the Red Sox, and they're only above the Nationals (14) because the Nats just gutted their system to pick up Gio Gonzalez. No one else has spent within $10 million of the Pirates since 2007 on the draft. If you skip past the Orioles (who are fifth), the Pirates' system is out-ranked by the next five teams on the list. Put more simply, the Pirates have spent $52 million in draft bonuses since 2007. Of the ten teams that spent $35 million or more, their minor league system ranks eighth and it's ninth if you consider the trade the Nationals just made.
Now, I'm not pointing this out to be critical just for the sake of being critical. If you really like Robbie Grossman and Starling Marte, the Pirates' list grades out better. If you think there's still some hope for Stetson Allie because the Pirates' have had good luck with pitchers that have control problems, the Pirates' list grades out better. If you think Tony Sanchez's 2011 season was a fluke that he'll bounce back from, the Pirates' list grades out better. The problem is that this goes both ways. If you think that Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole will flame out before they get to Pittsburgh, if you think that Marte is all flash and no substance or that Grossman is all numbers and no flash, if you think that Allie and Sanchez are fundamentally flawed prospects, then the Pirates' system grades out pretty poorly.
When Goldstein and Parks talked about the Pirates' system on their podcast, the word that kept getting used was top-heavy. The Pirates score well because they have three young pitchers with just about limitless potential (Taillon, Cole, Heredia), but behind them there's a lot of dreaming to do, even with the Starling Martes and Josh Bells. When you consider that the three guys at the top of the list are pitchers that 1.) would otherwise be in high school, 2.) would otherwise be a college sophomore and 3.) hasn't thrown a professional pitch yet, well, you can see why I've got some reservations.
That doesn't mean that the Pirates are a dead-end system. Imagine the perception of the Pirates' system in a year's time of Gerrit Cole makes a few electric appearances with the Bucs in September and Taillon climbs to Double-A with a strong year and Grossman follows up his breakout with another good season and Sanchez bounces back with a strong showing split between Indy and Pittsburgh and Marte matures at the plate in his Triple-A debut and Bell mashes in the low minors and Allie finds himself a bit and Von Rosenberg continues the strides he made late in 2011 and Kingham makes a strong jump to full season ball. They could just as easily go the other way, though, and it's easy to see that the difference between 12th and 2nd or 22nd isn't huge. I think 10th-12th is probably exactly where the Pirates should be right now based on the talent they have in their system, but as was true in the past, it's much more important where they rank in 12 months.